Friday, February 25, 2005

A Daf A Day

‘Why does our rabbi study Talmud?’ a perplexed congregant asked his synagogue’s chairman. ‘I thought he was already qualified!’ Traditional Judaism has always seen lifelong Torah study as absolutely indispensable to its vision of the world. The Shema itself requires us to strongly impress the Torah upon our children and to speak of it in every possible circumstance. The Mishnah describes Torah study as ‘equivalent to all of the Mitzvot’ and the Talmud prefers one who learns to one who observes, as ‘study leads to action.’

People are often surprised to discover that my greatest passion, and that of many of my colleagues, is studying and teaching Torah. Perhaps the greatest challenge of a rabbi’s professional life is finding enough time to learn and thereby continue one’s life-goal of plumbing the depths of the Torah and deepening one’s connection with the divine.

While there are many areas of Torah study, including Bible, Jewish philosophy, Jewish law and ethics, high-level learning most commonly centres on the Talmud. Judaism teaches that the revelation at Sinai was largely comprised of ‘the Oral Law’, a dynamic, all-encompassing repository of law, ethics, theological principles and esoteric ideas. This was meant to remain unwritten, scrupulously handed down by successive generations of teachers to their disciples. A century after the destruction of the second Temple, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi realised that this transmission was threatened by dispersal and persecution. So he wrote a terse form of the Oral Law, known as the Mishnah. Its analysis, discussion and clarification in the Torah academies of Israel and Babylon over the following centuries were codified as the Talmud by the sages of the early 6th century. Scrutinising, interpreting and most of all, absorbing oneself in the sea of the Talmud forms the basis for most Jewish learning today. Yeshivah students may devote as much as eight hours a day to its study. But it’s not easy; it can take years to master its complexities.

One way in which I further my own learning is through ‘daf yomi’. One of the most remarkable study projects ever devised, it unites people around the world in studying a daily folio-page of Talmud. As it contains close to 3000 pages, the entire cycle takes seven and a half years. Hundreds of daily shiurim worldwide teach the ‘daf’, as it is affectionately known. Wherever you are, the shiur will be studying the same page on the same day. As well as the shiur-goers, thousands (like me) study privately, in small groups, at lunchtime, while travelling, by listening to a recorded shiur, or even over the Internet.

The daily ‘daf’ is not a substitute for deeper study – there are pages that I should have learned better and others, I will admit, barely recall. Yet it has allowed me to maintain daily study despite a hectic schedule. It has also enabled me to acquaint myself with areas of Jewish thought that I would otherwise never have seen. And it has become part of my life – at the top of every day’s schedule is the ‘daf’; when I travel, my miniature tractate accompanies me, and my congregants would be surprised not to see me peering into a text whenever I get the chance. The late author Herman Wouk, a ‘daf yomi’ aficionado, remarked that the Talmud was in his bones, ‘elegant and arcane ethical algebra,’ quintessentially Jewish, fun and holy besides.

The 11th cycle of daf yomi will end on 1st March. Huge celebrations are planned in the UK, Israel and around the world, wherever the daf is learned. There will even be one in Lublin, where it all started. The biggest event will be in the USA, where an expected 120,000 people (of whom I will be one) will gather for a mega-siyum (concluding celebration). I am very excited – proud that I have actually seen it through, thrilled to have shared an experience with countless Jews around the world and overjoyed to attend the biggest siyum in history. But most of all, I can’t wait to start again.

Daf Yomi was the brainchild of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the pre-war head of the Yeshivah in Lublin. In 1923, at the first congress of Agudath Israel in Vienna, he proposed a daily page-a-day Talmud study programme, known as daf yomi. Scholars and laymen alike study the daf and finish the entire Talmud in seven and a half years. Daf yomi has grown into a worldwide movement, with shiurim and followers in every major Jewish community in the world. Many Jewish calendars now include the daf schedule and the current cycle has seen significant growth in the number of devotees.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle and is reprinted with permission.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Children In Shul

One of the curiosities of Anglo-Jewish synagogues is their members’ ambivalent attitude towards children. It is common for synagogue regulars to bemoan the dearth of small children in the Shul, worried that their absence indicates the imminent demise of their community. Yet when they attend, and worse still, behave as normal children, the regulars tut and grumble that they are too noisy! This is partially a British phenomenon: many restaurants in this country are unwelcoming to children, family tickets at attractions are absurdly expensive and baby-buggies often won’t fit through shop entrances. Yet since it is obvious that the presence of children is a sine qua non for a healthy community, the issue of children’s involvement in Shul life is worth exploring.

The United Synagogue in which I grew up, in common with most similar Shuls, ran a children’s service, which I thought was rather good. Almost none of the children who attended went to Jewish schools, so learning the prayers and songs in a structured atmosphere was the thing to do. In retrospect, there was another reason for this format – the main goal of the children’s service was to train the young participants for a life of adult Shul attendance. We dare not trivialise the need to raise children who will be comfortable with synagogue services and possibly even able to run them, yet it seems to me that times have changed, but in many places, children’s services have not.

It is to our collective credit that a much higher proportion of children from the mainstream community now attend Jewish primary schools, where they receive a daily dose of tefillah in some kind of structured atmosphere. Since davening and school go hand-in-hand, attending a regular Shabbat children’s service smells suspiciously like school on a Saturday, a major disincentive to attendance. Add to this the hardly controversial observation that while some (like me) were drawn in to synagogue life by the formal children’s service, the proportion of those who have scarcely attended Shul since childhood is alarmingly high. Put another way, the old-model children’s service did not produce a generation of Shul-able (or even Shul-going) adults. Were that the case, today our Shuls would be overrun; sadly, bar a few notable exceptions, they are not.

It is clearly necessary for children to be occupied with some age-appropriate activity, for while some will want to sit with their parents, many will quickly become bored in the Shul, and others may come without adults at all. Yet I don’t think that the Shul should be a childfree zone – some kind of balance between attending the adult service and a junior programme seems appropriate.

To my mind, the purpose of children’s programming is to enable the kids to have a really great time while on the Shul premises, while to some degree expanding their knowledge and love of Judaism. I feel that the formal service should be abandoned in favour of fun learning, including quizzes, drama and games, all with an educational bent, focused on the weekly portion, the season or a challenging issue from a Jewish perspective. There will, of course, be some Shabbat tefillah, but the overall content and style of the event should be as different as possible from that of the children’s regular school day. If at all possible, several smaller, age-appropriate groups should replace a single service – how can one provide an engaging experience for an eleven-year-old and a four-year-old together? And to give it the right feel, I think that the term ‘service’ should be abandoned in favour of ‘programme’ or similar.

I want the children to leave Shul happy and exhilarated, having had a chance to spend time with their friends, run about to release some energy, learn something new and have a great time. Let them be sorry that the programme has finished for that week and full of anticipation for the next one – in short, Shul needs to be turned into a place that children see as fun and cool, to which they will want to bring their friends. It’s true that they will make lots of noise and won’t spend more than a short while davening, but does that really matter? Give them positive experiences as children and they are much more likely to come back as adults. Childhood moments are formative – a good experience now will probably lead to proper involvement later.

It goes without saying that these programmes must be run professionally – modern children are experts at complaining if things aren’t quite up to scratch! There should be prizes and attendance incentives, as well as that old Jewish favourite, food.

I appreciate that this model won’t suit all communities – in some, a lower proportion of children attend Jewish primary schools, and so a more tefillah-focused content may be appropriate. In others, it may be very hard to identify suitable madrichim who are young, dynamic and capable of imparting a love of Judaism to their charges. In still others, the small number of children may not allow the division of the programme into several groups.

Yet in principal, the central need is to change focus– by giving children a true children’s experience, they will want to keep coming back to Shul – as children, youth and then later as excited adults.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.